For some, no trouble staying off the bubble


Thirty days and enough hot air to fill a dozen dirigibles remain until Selection Sunday. Instead of handicapping bubble teams, let's look at the other side of the field, tournament locks and which coaches have a track record that indicates they can shepherd a team to the Final Four in St. Louis.

Among this week's Associated Press Top 10, Kentucky's Tubby Smith, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Louisville's Rick Pitino have turned out national championship teams in the past decade. When he was at Kansas, North Carolina's Roy Williams went to four Final Fours and two championship games. Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton has been to three Final Fours.

The other four coaches currently in the Top 10 have never been to a Final Four.

He's the favorite for national Coach of the Year, but the slimmest March resume among the four belongs to Al Skinner at No. 4 Boston College. He has all of three NCAA tournament wins to show for his 16 previous seasons as a head coach. In 1988, the year before he took over at Rhode Island, Skinner was an assistant when the Rams went to the Sweet 16. Before he left for BC, Skinner assembled the roster that Jim Harrick took to the 1998 Elite Eight.

Wake Forest's Skip Prosser will work the NCAAs for the ninth time in his 12 seasons as a head coach, but last season was the first in which he got to the Sweet 16. Prosser also experienced that round as a Xavier assistant in 1990, better days for Pete Gillen.

Top-ranked Illinois has a low-profile coach in Bruce Weber, who took Southern Illinois to the Sweet 16 in 2002, before the Salukis were eliminated by Connecticut. He returned to that round last season, his first with the Fighting Illini. In his 18 seasons as an assistant to Gene Keady at Purdue, the high-water mark was a regional final in 1994.

No one has gotten closer to college basketball's showcase with greater frequency recently than Bill Self, who in the past five years took three different schools and as many sets of expectations to regional finals.

In 2000, Self and a bunch of Tulsa nobodies - his power forward grew up on a working ranch - took North Carolina down to the wire. A year later, his first Illinois team was a top seed that couldn't get past more talented Arizona. Last year, Self's first Kansas team couldn't get by Georgia Tech, which was a higher seed.

Of course, that loss to the Yellow Jackets underlined how irrelevant coaching experience can be in the NCAA tournament. Paul Hewitt entered last year's tournament without a win to his credit. As a counterpoint, remember that Gary Williams was 0-5 in the Sweet 16 before he knocked down that door and got Maryland to its first Final Four in 2001.

Double duty

The bad news is that Princeton is 1-4 in the Ivy League and in danger of finishing below .500 for the first time in conference play since 1953. That's 51 straight seasons with a winning record in league games. The second-longest such streak in the nation belongs to Syracuse, which last finished below .500 in league play in 1980-81, Year No. 2 for the Big East.

The good news is that with no postseason conference tournament in which the Tigers can make amends and knock off Penn, Will Venable will join the Princeton baseball team in mid-March.

A 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard who leads the Tigers in assists, field goal percentage and minutes and is No. 2 in scoring and rebounding, Venable could repeat as an All-Ivy selection.

As a junior, he led Princeton to two Ivy League titles and played in two NCAA tournaments. After the basketball team lost to Texas last March, he joined the Tigers' baseball team and hit .344. An outfielder, Venable was selected in the 15th round of the June 2004 draft by the Orioles.

Baseball is in his blood. His father, Max Venable, played 12 seasons in the majors. Will Venable, who hits the batting cage twice a week during basketball season, said his name will go back into this year's draft, keeping the Orioles from adding to their history with college basketball players.

Before he made an unsuccessful bid to become the third baseman here in 1999 and 2000, Ryan Minor starred for Oklahoma. Tim Stoddard, another 6-7 forward, started for N.C. State in one of the greatest college games ever, the Wolfpack's 1974 ACC tournament final win over Maryland. Nine years later, he appeared in 47 games as a reliever for the 1983 world champion Orioles.

Hit the road

Besides tomorrow's game at Maryland, Duke still has to go to Georgia Tech and North Carolina, and the Blue Devils aren't the only Top 25 team facing a rugged regular-season schedule the rest of the way.

No. 5 Kentucky has games at South Carolina, Alabama and Florida, and both the Gamecocks and Gators are desperate for a marquee win that will bolster their NCAA credentials.

No. 18 Pittsburgh gets Notre Dame at home tomorrow, then plays four of its last six regular-season games on the road, at No. 8 Syracuse, No. 22 Villanova, No. 4 Boston College and Notre Dame. Despite January wins over Connecticut and Syracuse, the Panthers need that caliber of competition to cure a self-inflicted case of the strength-of-schedule blues.

The Big East and the Big 12 share the greatest presence in the Top 25, where both have five teams.

Planting seeds

Paul McMullen's weekly prediction for the top four seeds in each regional of the NCAA tournament:

Syracuse Austin

Wake Forest


Boston College North Carolina

Alabama Arizona

Michigan State Gonzaga

Chicago Albuquerque

Illinois Duke

Kentucky Oklahoma State

Syracuse Washington

Oklahoma Utah

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